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JOHANNESBURG -- You don't get many chances to meet Brazil in the final of the world's third-biggest soccer tournament for national teams (after the World Cup and the European Championship). Which is why the U.S. has a chance to make history on Sunday in the title game of the Confederations Cup (2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univisión), the first final in a major tournament in the history of American men's soccer.
The U.S. has already stunned the soccer world once this week, slaying world No. 1 Spain 2-0 on Wednesday to break the Spaniards' 15-game winning streak and 35-game streak without a loss. It may not have been the biggest win in U.S. history--I'd put it in the top five, if only because this isn't the World Cup -- but I do regard the sinking of the Spanish Armada as the most impressive U.S. win ever.
Why? Several reasons: The U.S. deserved the victory, refusing to play bunker-ball against Spain. The European champion Spaniards had their top squad here (minus only the injured Andrés Iniesta), had acquired a fearsome reputation as the world's best team and had every motivation to win (the streaks, a potential final against Brazil and the awareness that they'd have to stay for the third-place game anyway if they lost).
And yet if the U.S. were to take down Brazil in Sunday's final, I'd consider that an even more impressive victory than the Spanish conquest. If there were such a thing as world power rankings, Brazil would have been No. 2 entering this tournament behind Spain, having risen to the top of South American World Cup qualifying behind the sterling play of superstar midfielder Kaká. With Spain's loss, Brazil would now be No. 1.
What's more, the U.S. will have to face the five-time World Cup champions without starting central midfielder Michael Bradley, who picked up a devastating red card late in the game against Spain and has to sit out. Bradley, the son of coach Bob Bradley, had played a magnificent tournament as the U.S.' holding midfielder, stifling attacks and linking with the U.S.' offensive-minded players. In Bradley's absence, the challenge for the U.S. will be even bigger on Sunday than it was against Spain.
Here are three things on my mind heading into the game:
• Will the U.S. go 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1? Bob Bradley has a tough choice to make. Even the coach has acknowledged that the U.S. seems to play better in a 4-4-2 with Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies as the two U.S. forwards. But Michael Bradley's loss means the U.S. might want more defensive cover in the midfield to deal with the wide-ranging Kaká, his wing man Ramires and withdrawn forward Robinho, to say nothing of holding midfielders Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva. That could mean yanking Davies and asking Sacha Kljestan to play alongside Ricardo Clark in the defensive midfield behind an attacking central mid (Benny Feilhaber perhaps?) with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan on the flanks and Altidore up top.
• Can Benny Feilhaber handle the pressure? No matter which lineup Bradley chooses, Feilhaber is the most likely new addition, and he'll have his hands full (even more so in a 4-4-2, since defense isn't exactly his strong suit). But Feilhaber has had some good moments in this tournament: His passes contributing to goals against Italy, Egypt and Spain revealed a vision that few U.S. players possess. The Brazilian-born Feilhaber seems like a better choice for central midfield than Dempsey, who struggled in that spot in Brazil's 3-0 win over the U.S. on June 18. Besides, Dempsey and Donovan have been dangerous on the flanks of late and could have some space to work with considering the attacking mindsets of Brazilian fullbacks Maicon and Andre Santos (with Dani Alves likely coming off the bench).
• Can the center still hold for the U.S.'s last lines of defense? For all the memorable performances in the Yanks' upset of Spain, the bend-but-don't-break resilience of the U.S. spine was perhaps the most remarkable thing of all. Michael Bradley and Clark barely put a foot wrong, centerbacks Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit made smart plays and last-second recoveries and Tim Howard had a giant game in goal to deny Spain's fearsome lineup of global All-Stars. Those things all have to happen again on Sunday for the U.S. to have a chance, with the added challenge that another player will be filling in for Bradley. Brazil has four primary attackers: Kaká, Robinho, Ramires and center forward Luis Fabiano. (Felipe Melo may venture forward, too.) That's a lot of speed, which means the U.S. will have to guard against Brazil's whooshing counterattacks and prevent the Brazilians from blowing past the Americans' back line.
Through-balls: After picking up three red cards in four games, the U.S. can't afford another one against Brazil, which would put any chance for an upset out the window ... Brazil didn't play great in its 1-0 win over South Africa on Thursday. In fact, Bafana Bafana was able to get some dangerous headers on set pieces, good news for U.S. aerial stalwarts Dempsey, Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra ... If Davies plays, his speed might be able to create some problems for Brazilian center backs Lúcio and Luisão (the likely starter with Juan out injured) ... Brazil's bench is just a wee bit scarier than the U.S.', with European superstars Dani Alves and Alexandre Pato and domestic-based stud forward Nilmar. But I'll be curious to see who Bob Bradley brings on. It could be Davies, Kljestan or Conor Casey, though I have a hard time envisioning DaMarcus Beasley (who had a nightmare against Brazil last week), José Francisco Torres or Freddy Adu (the latter two of which haven't played a minute in this tournament) ... I expect Bocanegra to play at left back again, which might be a good thing, considering Maicon abused Jonathan Bornstein on June 18 ... Couple things to consider: The U.S. will have one more day of rest than Brazil, which could be useful in such a compact tournament, and the temperatures will likely be near freezing (which might slightly favor the U.S.).
How do you see this final playing out? Does the U.S. have a realistic chance to make history? Post your thoughts below, and check back on gameday before, during and after the game...
UPDATE: Check out Jonah Freedman's live blog of USA-Brazil on Sunday, which is scheduled to feature commentary from none other than Frankie Hejduk!